Last week, it was Casual Connect Europe time again. And as is good tradition, here are my slides:
Hello stranger. It’s been too long.
However, with no further explanation, let me tell you about an area that tickled more than one of my senses over the past couple of months, and that is education. You see, I am a governor at a rather wonderful school, the Fallibroome Academy, in Macclesfield, so this infatuation is nothing new. And this school, like many others, is looking at employing mobile media to improve on learning conditions and harness education. However, is there not more? Or, rather, is there not more that could be done with the various toolsets we have on our hands to further the education not only for children in affluent first-world neighbourhoods?
Self-organised or taught?
There are some cool solutions that use the scaling power only digital media have. You will have read about a lot of the MOOC‘s that are all the rage these days: Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, etc., etc. All these share their fair (?) share of criticism, too, which mainly revolves around a) lack of personal interaction, b) general suspicion if really large things work in this context and c) politics and egos (this is the least interesting).
Now, a) in particular is of course a potentially big one. Then of course, there is the famous story about the African kids that managed to learn from and ultimately hack an Android tablet without ever having been exposed to electronic gadgets, programming or indeed touchscreen interfaces before.
However, I would posit that most would agree that a great teacher is still the best way to lift the minds of children. It is not only about grasping algebra or grammar or learn how to program (I still only write BS# and Legalease) but about providing motivation and outlook and goals. So as impressive as the Ethopian youngsters are, there must be (even) better ways to provide for a rounded education. And, no, I don’t think spoiled English kids with iPads is the be-all-end-all of this.
Mobile is a Tool. A powerful tool but yet only a tool.
So, let’s take a step back. First: tools. Mobile is the obvious solution: its penetration is by far highest. Infrastructure is easier to build even in rural and remote locations than fixed-line connectivity. It is cheaper. Now, let us not forget though that mobile technology is – per se – a mere carrier: it can transport meaning from A to B, from one person to one (or many) other person(s). A regular textbook remains a regular textbook, it is “only” transported via a different means.
Did I say only? When I wrote my first big thesis at university (“the suspensive elements of article 90 para. 2 of the EC Treaty”), I needed some sources that were only available at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (I went to law school in Germany). It would take two weeks for a librarian in Washington to tell me if a) they really had the book and b) if and when I could borrow it and then another 3-6 weeks for it to arrive. I managed to short-circuit the system as I was subscribed to a listserv of law librarians and they reduced step 1 to one day and – probably because it was all so new and exciting – step 2 to 5 days. My professor was flabbergasted. Now imagine I would have been studying in, say, Arusha (that’s in Tanzania). Much harder you would think. Today? Hah, you log onto the Interwebs and you’re off to the races. But this access is not necessarily there in, say, Lera Town (that’s a village in Ethopia, very deserving of your support; if you feel like it, go here), you’re buggered. No Interwebs there. Not easily accessible anyway. Enter mobile…
Access + Meaning = Power
So, it is a big deal. But it still is only the first step: providing access to a (potential) wealth of information. You still need to get this information transformed into knowledge, and that is the process of learning. We all learn better from other people: kids from their older siblings, apprentices from their masters, junior programmers from senior programmers – in short from teachers. And, yes, I know: Zuckerberg dropped out, Thiel tries to talk kids out of it, etc. But the Zuckerbergs and other prodigies are not the norm we need to model educational systems for, so let’s leave this aside.
So, step 2 is then motivation and nurturing. How do we best motivate and nurture children – ideally irrespective from wealth, class and geography? If we can find universal mechanisms that promote motivation and learning, it will be easier to bridge the gaps between well-schooled Europe and more marginally accessible systems in, say, rural Africa but also in emerging economies with much younger populations (and thereofore higher student numbers, i.e. larger classes, lower teacher/student ratios, etc.) such as, say, Indonesia or the Philippines.
Now here, alas, we leave the realms of tools and hardware and enter the world of concepts and ideas. And there are, of course, plenty. Most circle around motivation across a large number of kids (and how can you unify these: every child is different, isn’t it?). The challenge then is that scale requires some sort of unification. Customize too much, and you lose scale. So, from that lofty 50,000′ spot, I will not look at very customized solutions but I am intrigued by universal concepts that might help here.
Games thrive on a number of basic fundamentals, most of which center around concepts of competition and collaboration. These concepts seem indeed to be very universal: games are being played all over the world and most people are able to understand the rules of a game fairly quickly – even if they didn’t grow up with it (cricket is an exception; I will never understand that one). This is because those two fundamentals are pretty much everywhere. Now then, use these mechanics (of which there are plenty) and harness education. Infuse self-motivation into learning and you expand the reach tremendously. Couple it with the right tools (cf. supra under mobile) and you are onto true scale.
These are only some lose thoughts that sprint around my brain. All other things permitting, I will attempt to explore this more over the next couple of months. Until then, bear with me…